Beyond #MeToo, Brazilian women rise up against racism and sexism

Women’s empowerment recently got a big boost at the Golden Globes, but the United States isn’t the only place having a feminist revival.

In 2015, two years before the #MeToo campaign got Americans talking about sexual harassment, Brazilian feminists launched #MeuPrimeiroAssedio, or #MyFirstHarrassment. In its first five days, the hashtag racked up 82,000 tweets detailing the chronic sexual harassment of women in this South American nation. It soon spread across Latin America in Spanish translation as #MiPrimerAcoso.

The viral success of #MeuPrimeiroAssedio spurred a spate of social media activism in Brazil, where despite decades of feminist efforts gender inequality remains deeply entrenched.

With #MeuAmigoSecreto – #MyAnonymousFriend – women documented misogyny on the streets and at work. Tagging #MeuQueridoProfessor – #MyDearTeacher – university students outed sexism in the classroom.

And when the weekly news magazine Veja described the wife of Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, as “beautiful, modest and a housewife” in April 2016, feminists transformed that stereotype into a meme showcasing empowered women.

Temer came to power following the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff. Many saw Rousseff’s ouster as misogynistic. Feminists were determined that Brazilian sexism would no longer go unchecked.

Black women’s bodies

As race and gender researchers, we’ve been watching Brazil’s feminist resurgence closely to see whether it reflects the needs of Afro-Brazilian women, who make up 25 percent of the population.

Though the country has long considered itself colorblind, black and indigenous Brazilians are poorer than white Brazilians. Women of color in Brazil also experience sexual violence at much higher rates than white women.

For example, domestic workers, who are predominantly Afro-Brazilian, have been systematically harassed by their male employers. This centuries-old power play dates back to slavery.

Since both of us have recently published books – “The Biopolitics of Beauty” and “Health Equity in Brazil” – examining the impact of Brazilian medical practices on black women, we are particularly interested to see if Brazilian feminists will tackle two issues that particularly affect black women: health care and plastic surgery.

These may seem unrelated to each other and to black women’s rights, but in Brazil they are deeply intertwined. All Brazilian citizens get free medical care under the Sistema Único de Saúde, the national health care system.

Despite universal access to health services, black women do not always receive the best care. Though Brazil’s colorblind approach to health has resulted in scant documentation of differential health outcomes by race, one study found that black women are two and a half times more likely to die from an unsafe abortion than white women.

The startling discrepancy probably reflects a lack of high-quality prenatal and obstetric care for black women, which is a problem in U.S. hospitals as well. Discriminatory treatment by medical professionals, which includes a lack of attention to the specific health needs of black Brazilians, also factors in.

Black activists have also pointed out for decades that Afro-Brazilian women have higher rates of sterilization and abortion, which in Brazil is mostly illegal – and thus very risky.

Overall maternal health is also markedly worse among black women. In Brazil’s impoverished northeast, which has the country’s highest concentration of African descendants, black women are 10 to 20 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Black women in Brazil have significantly higher maternal mortality rates than white women. Nacho Doce/Reuters

The ‘negroid nose’

Medical doctors may neglect black Brazilian women, but plastic surgeons pursue them. Since the 1960s, Brazilian cosmetic surgery has been included in Brazil’s national health care system.

In Brazil, white beauty standards remain the cultural ideal. That means many Brazilian plastic surgeons operate on the basis that more European features – facial features in particular – are better.